I have been working from home for three years now. Prior to that, I had been working remote one or two days per week. When I started working from home occasionally, I realised that I was more productive, calm, communicative and effective on the days I worked from home. I later prioritised finding jobs that would allow more remote work. But it wasn’t an easy transition. In one of my jobs, there was a definite reluctance to people not being in the office every day. There was an attitude from some managers and colleagues that staff who are at home aren’t really working. In others, the attitude that you should be always available to prove you were working. And of course, there are staff who don’t believe in working from home, because they personally don’t like it. Navigating this complex arena is challenging, but not too dissimilar to navigating workplace politics.
91% of people who work remote find they are more productive at home than in the office.
There is the claim that working at home isn’t suited to everyone. And broadly speaking I would agree. In the same way that working in an office isn’t suited to everyone. As we all know a one-size-fits-all policy never gets the most from your staff. But a lot of the issues around remote work, such as social interaction and networking can be achieved remotely, it just requires thinking a little differently.
Remote work basics
If you are jumping into remote working for the first time, whether you are leading a group, running a one-person-business, your an employee in an established remote-work group or you are the first in your company to take the remote-work leap, there are some basic principles that can set you up for remote-work success.
- Set up space to work. You don’t have to have a dedicated room, though it helps, but you need to separate work and the rest of your life. This helps for multiple reasons. If you have anyone at home, it is easy for them to interrupt you and just ask a quick question. Ten interruptions and your day has disappeared. Having a dedicated work environment also helps you adjust to work-mode, and helps you put things down at the end of the day. Many who start remote work end up working longer hours because the computer is always there! Even if you don’t have a dedicated work-space that you can leave everything out on, you can still create a healthy work environment. Choose a table or desk, and know that when the laptop comes out, and your notepad is there, it is work time. Tidying that away at the end of the day is actually a great way to tell your brain you are done with work.
- Don’t be tempted to do any housework or chores until you are a remote pro! It is easy to just say ‘oh I’ll pop on some laundry’, or ‘I’ll just fill the dishwasher’. This can work, but all too often ends up being a procrastination technique. And if you’ve ever seen someone posting on social media during a workday about how much housework they have done (yes I’ve seen that!) you’ll know it isn’t going to go down well with your boss. You wouldn’t do it in the office, so don’t do it at home. Having said that, the beauty of remote work is that you can build flexibility into your schedule, but this comes once you’ve trained yourself to actually work at home and that you’ve convinced your team you are still doing all-the-things! You can eventually take breaks that might actually be a chore (and breaks are a great way to change tasks and think!), but you first need to build good habits that mean those chores are a genuine break and offer the required benefits of a break, rather than being a distraction.
- (Over)-communicate. There is a dedicated section below on communication at work, but remember that your colleagues and bosses can’t see you if you are home. If you have worked with off-site clients or collaborators before, you’ll probably be good at keeping them informed. The same principles apply to colleagues. They don’t see you in the office anymore, so you need to make an effort to tell them what is going on. Initially, this may seem like you are communicating too much, but trust me, you almost certainly aren’t communicating enough.
- Set expectations for when you are available to respond to requests/emails. It is very easy when people move to remote work to end up checking email all the time, responding to every Slack notification and being ‘always on’. As we all know from office work this KILLS productivity. In the office you look busy and you can make excuses for poor productivity. Working remotely is all about trust, and therefore WHAT you achieve becomes much more important. So use the best time management methods, particularly batching your work. But make sure your colleagues know you only check your email (or whatever the favourite method for communicating is) once or twice a day. And then shut those applications down!
The single biggest concern with managers who are new to the concept of their staff remote-working is that they won’t really work! Yes, this seems illogical when we all know that if you really want to you can look busy in a cubicle but not achieve very much. In the office this may be handled by casual check-ins, reminders of priorities and more formal meetings. And all of these tactics apply in the remote work option, they just require subtly different methods. Communication becomes key! So use these tools to be a better manager and/or make sure your manager knows you will deliver on promised work.
- Check-ins. Make sure you give regular updates to your boss/team on what you are working on and your current priorities. it is good to set a frequency that allows you to make progress (i.e. you don’t spend all your time checking in) but also provides constant reassurance to those around you. This should take no more than 2-3 minutes otherwise it becomes an overhead that isn’t serving you. For full-time staff, daily tends to work well, but it should be tailored to the place you work. Here is a good template for such an update (copy and paste this each day – and remember N/A can be an appropriate answer!):
- What I did today:
- What I didn’t get to today that I wanted to:
- What I’m stuck on:
- What I need to do/help I need to get unstuck:
- My highest priority for tomorrow:
- Communicate your highest priority. We all have different priorities, and part of the job of a manager is to make sure you are working on the highest priority. But often this isn’t communicated well enough, even in-person. So even if you don’t do the full check-in every day, make sure you are clear on the highest priority and WHY it is the highest priority. And always check whether ‘urgent’ means ‘now’ or after your current task is complete!
- Ask for help. One thing people struggle with when remote working, is getting the help they need. You can’t just drop by someone’s desk to ask for help (and actually that can be really disruptive from a productivity point of view!). But you still need to ask. Use your check-ins to flag up where you are stuck, and then follow-up with the required action to get the help you need.
- Use video for meetings. In the world of tech this can be very unpopular but believe me, video gives you that small amount of body language that can make all the difference. Well run video calls really are as good as face-to-face meetings, provided everyone actually pays full attention. There are two common reasons why people claim face-to-face is more effective: the ability to get a good read on body language and prioritising the meeting rather than multi-tasking. There is no reason why you can’t achieve the latter with enough discipline in the team. Body language is harder, especially with more than a few people, but it can be done. Keep your meetings small, high priority, short, purposeful, open, honest and unthreatening/non-judgemental and you might be surprised at what can be achieved.
Networking & Socialising
Networking and socialising are something that as a society we still feel is completely different in person to virtually. There are an increasing number of virtual coffee events and that is a great example of how to network and socialise without the impromptu elevator discussions or water cooler chats. The main difference for networking and socialising remotely is that it is harder to be spontaneous, so build it into your week and recognise the value of it.
- Organise a weekly virtual coffee for your team. Make this non-negotiable for your staff (if you aren’t the boss of the team, you’ll need to convince your boss of the benefit of this networking). Ideally, this is a small number of people and you all have those videos on.
- With direct reports offer casual check-ins at least weekly which are NOT about how hard they are working. This is an opportunity for some chat, mentoring and relationship building, not pointing out how they could be doing their job better.
- Continue networking through social sites and platforms. Outside the workplace, these can be LinkedIn, and other professional platforms. But also try using social platforms within work, such as Slack channels.
As a leader, it can be hard to adapt to remote management if you rely heavily on casual oversight by popping by someone’s desk or having an open door policy when you are in the office. But that doesn’t mean these tactics don’t work remotely, they just require a different approach. The good news is that any change is a great time to up-level your leadership skills and reap the rewards of loyal staff and increased productivity.
- The office to remote transition.
This is where so many managers fall flat and sometimes fail. The key is to set clear guidelines and expectations, provide guidance on best practice and then trust that it will work. Don’t set expectations of rigidity and ‘you must be prepared to answer the phone all day’. This demonstrates a lack of trust, resentment and ultimately loyalty and productivity suffer. Treat your staff as adults who will deliver – if they don’t that is a loyalty or productivity problem not something that can be fixed with excessive oversight! Let them figure out how they work most effectively in a remote environment by gently guiding them, but not setting strict rules. Remember: one size never fits all.
- Cut out the update meetings.
These are never a good use of time unless everyone needs to know every update that everyone else is giving. Update meetings can be useful irregularly to give everyone an overview of what is going on/coming up outside their immediate responsibilities. But in general update meetings are a poor use of time both in-person and remotely.
- Focus on high-quality regular one-on-ones with video for problem-solving/driving work forward.
Your ability to read and understand how people are feeling and getting on is harder when you don’t have the ability to drop by and read their body language. So prioritise checking in on someone and more importantly how they are really getting on by putting them at ease and asking the right questions.
- Have virtual office-hours for drop-ins.
Open door policies are great, and there is no reason why you can’t have that for remote teams too. Set times where you are on-email and available on video call basically instantaneously. But make sure the time-slot(s) work for everyone, particularly part-time staff or those with regular meetings you are not involved in. For the first few weeks of transitioning to remote work, or someone starting work in your team, use this time to reach out and ask people how they are and start encouraging them to use this time to bring concerns to you.
- Provide bulletin updates to the entire team.
With fewer update meetings it is essential everyone still knows what is going on in the business (this applies to in-office work too!). They are getting group communications from your social events, but your team still benefits from having an overview of the work being done, the focus and the reasons why things are being prioritised. Use your one-on-one update meetings/reporting cycle to gather pertinent information that will help people feel informed and see the bigger picture. No one enjoys update meetings, but people frequently complain they don’t know what is going on, so give them the chance to find out in their own time. However, with remote work, emails can become extremely noisy, so ideally use a virtual notice board if you use such a tool, or make the email different. If in doubt, always include some celebrations or staff recognition pieces in the bulletin, and everyone will have a great reason to keep reading.
Remote leadership is often seen as a challenge, but in reality, it is no more challenging than on-site leadership: the principles are the same, you just need slightly different implementation.